Divrei Torah on the weekly portions
The ones who died
“The ones who died in the plague were 24,000” (BeMidbar 25:9).
The above Hebrew text with the special layening notes* contains a fascinating oddity. Under the letter Fei of the word BaMageifah is an Etnachtah note, which is grammatically equivalent to a semicolon. Rav Shraga Feivel Mesamergen wonders how this semicolon makes sense in our verse? The role of a semicolon is to separate independent clauses of a compound sentence. How is this achieved in our verse? It appears nonsensical to insert a semicolon in this verse! Isn’t it all just one clause?
Contrast our verse with the verse from Korach describing an earlier plague. Note how the Etnachtah, or semicolon, here separates two independent clauses as it is supposed to do.
“The ones who died in the plague were 14,700; in addition to the ones who died because of Korach's rebellion” (BeMidbar 17:14).
Rav Feivel provides a stunning explanation. The Etnachtah in our verse in Balak is actually alerting us that a second clause is present. The obvious clause is that God decreed that 24,000 Israelites would die on account of the nation’s sin (of sexual immorality with the Moabites). The other clause is that God displayed mercy by including in this total number those who were scheduled to die anyway on that day because their time was up.
So, our verse is to be translated as follows: “VaYiheyu HaMeitim” = “The ones who were due to die (anyway on that day) were” “BaMageifah” = “included with those (who died) in the plague;” “Arba’ah Ve’Esrim Alef” = “(thus the total deaths were) 24,000”.
This equips us to understand the verse in Shemot 12:23 regarding the tenth plague in Egypt: “God will pass through to strike Egypt and He will see the blood over the door and on the two doorposts; then God will pass over that door and not let the Angel of Death enter your houses to strike”. Why does the verse mention the apparently superfluous phrase about not allowing the Angel of Death to prowl on that night? The verse has already stated that God Himself would kill the Egyptian firstborns! The Vilna Ga’on answers that God specifically refused entry to the Angel of Death whose job was to kill those Israelites who were due to die anyway on that day, so as not to support the Egyptians who would have claimed that the Israelites were also dying in the plague.
* These cantillation notes that accompany the words in the Torah were also given to Moshe at Mount Sinai.